Thar She Blows!

Last October, Iceland announced it would resume hunting great whales, breaking a 20-year moratorium on commercial whaling. Icelandic whalers will be allowed to kill nine endangered fin whales—the second-largest species after blue whales—and 30 smaller, more abundant minkes by the end of August. The killing has already begun: By the end of last November, whalers had killed seven fins, producing a storm of international criticism.

It"s politics, not economics, driving Iceland"s new whale hunts. In cities like Tokyo, there is already plenty of whale meat on the shelves.© COLIN WOODWARD

"It’s outside all international norms to hunt an endangered species," says Susan Lieberman, director of WWF’s Rome-based Global Species Program. "There is a commercial whaling moratorium in effect
And targeting fin whales is a confrontational and aggressive act."

Twenty-five countries issued a joint diplomatic protest against the move on November 1, including the U.S., Great Britain and Australia, demanding the hunt be halted. Iceland’s move further undermined the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the troubled international treaty organization that regulates whaling, by directly challenging its 20-year old moratorium. "They are testing what the international reaction would be, and I think they’ve found it has been pretty harsh," says Sue Fisher of Britain’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Norway is the only other country in the world with a commercial whale hunt, but that is focused exclusively on minkes, which are about an eighth the mass of fin whales. Operating from small vessels, Norwegian fishermen kill between 600 and 800 minkes each year.

Stefan Asmundsson, the commissioner of whaling at Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries, says his country’s hunts are sustainable, despite targeting an endangered species. "The fin whale stocks being targeted by Iceland are not in any way endangered," he says. "There is no lineage between the stocks in the North Atlantic, which are abundant, and those in the Southern Hemisphere"—decimated by factory whaling fleets in mid-20th century. Asmundsson also defended his country’s defiance of the moratorium, noting that at the last IWC meeting in 2005, whaling nations succeeded in passing a pro-whaling statement by 33 to 32.

Critics of whaling point out that the industry has an extremely poor conservation record. Many whale species including blue, fin, right, sperm and humpback whales were hunted to the verge of extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries, and Norway and Japan played central roles in the destruction of Antarctica’s once-bountiful whale populations.

Recovery has been slow. In 2003, a study by Stanford University geneticist Stephen Palumbi posits that the pre-whaling populations of North Atlantic humpback, fin, and minke whales were far larger than previously thought. Others question Iceland’s motives, since its domestic market has been unable to absorb the meat from the country’s three-year-old scientific hunt, which netted a total of 161 minkes. "This is not driven by economics, it’s just political, which makes it far more egregious," says Lieberman.

—Colin Woodard